Enlightenment Perspectives

Undervalued and Overspent


As an Australian woman living in Korea, many people often ask me if it is hard to live in Seoul as a foreigner. When I initially moved to Korea three years ago, I might have answered “yes”. These days, however, after having interacted with Korean culture on a more substantial level, I feel like any social problems I may face in Korea are not related so much to my nationality or “foreignness”, so much as they are a result of my gender.

Ajumma and Agasshi: Undervalued and Overspent 

[box]”Ajumma and Agasshi: The Reign of Korean Women” will focus on examining Gender, Society and Culture in Korean daily life.[/box]

How Korean women are often depicted in the Korean media: young and shy

As an Australian woman living in Korea, many people often ask me if it is hard to live in Seoul as a foreigner.  When I initially moved to Korea three years ago, I might have answered “yes”. These days, however, after having interacted with Korean culture on a more substantial level, I feel like any social problems I may face in Korea are not related so much to my nationality or “foreignness”, so much as they are a result of my gender.  Being a woman in Korea, regardless of nationality, is quite an obstacle to achieving great social and professional respect in this country, as Korea’s long-surviving Confucius philosophy does arguably promote a strong patriarchal social structure with women subordinated to men.  While I have noticed that Korean men are delivered a lot of public freedom to smoke, drink, work, and stay out late, “nice” Korean women do not have such lenient social freedoms, and are still often criticized for smoking or staying out late in particular areas. Such entrenched public restrictions become more evident when we look at how women are vastly underrepresented in most managerial sectors in Korea.  With an upcoming Presidential Election in Korea set to take place in December 2012, and with the strongest candidate being a woman, the time is right for Korean women to start pushing for change.

A Korean woman on the subway

Underutilized Talent

Korea is brimming with women who are overeducated but underemployed, and on a broader social scale, clearly undervalued.  Of all the countries I have travelled around the world, Korea has to be one of the most developed societies that is continuing to openly and severely undervalue its highly-educated elite women, purely based on gender.  Even though Korea invests a huge amount of money in the tertiary education of women, only 60% of Korean women aged between 25 and 64 years of age have any participation in the workforce.  There are reasons for this unchanging gender-biased social situation.  One of the primary reasons for why Korean women feature less in public working life is the fact that many women in modern Korea are still expected to carry most of the weight of nurturing children, supervising house management, and taking care of extended family members.   Feminism is such an underground movement in Korea, that women can barely speak up about their modern identity crisis.

The titles of a married Korean woman might read like this:

Mother.  Wife.  House keeper.  Slave to mother-in-law.  Last but not least; Salary Woman.

The role of the Korean woman within the family unit covers an expansive list of titles and it is an extremely unrewarding juggling job.  In the year 2012, Korean women often have to manage preparing traditional foods and side dishes such as kimchi (Korean spicy cabbage), as well as washing clothes, preparing feasts for holiday events, and monitoring children’s after-school study programs.  This is no simple life, and when Korean married women struggle to balance all of these things with a career, there are always other relatives and extended family on the sidelines ready to step in and chide the female head of the house for not fulfilling all her roles.  Now that greater numbers of Korean women are starting to enter the workforce every year, the traditional roles of women are starting to shift slightly, while society is still not ready to adjust to an evolving image of women’s roles in the private sphere.

During the day many highly-educated Korean women flock to coffee
shops and department stores in Seoul.

Inside and Outside Personas

Traditionally, and even as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, Korean women were not expected to have a role outside of the home.  Company life was considered to be the kingdom of men, and even today most Korean companies feature male-dominant management boards and military-style management structures.  Women were expected to sacrifice themselves to focus on maintaining a strong and academically competitive household.  In Korea, education is of utmost importance, and the burden of maintaining children’s education standards always lies with the mother, with Korean mothers grooming and propelling their kids towards academic and social achievement.   While many women are now entering the workforce, the global recession has severely affected women’s chances of starting out in a good company, and a significant number of highly-educated and bilingual Korean women are still not being employed in Korea.

Pressure to exit the company

While Korean women can be seen present in the freshman ranks of Korean companies, there is still significant societal and company pressure for women to leave their company once they have a baby.   Maternity leave is theoretically possible in Korean companies, but in practice it is never (or rarely) taken. This means that many highly-educated Korean women work between the ages of 23 and 29, and after they get married and have a child around this stage of life, their chances of progressing up the ranks in their career decreases rapidly.  This is one of the reasons why the birthrate in Korea has dropped dramatically over the past thirty years, to an average of just 1.15 babies per woman.  Over the last five years the Ministry for Gender Equality and Family found that 53.4% of women quit their working life after marriage or after having  a baby.  Many government and research bodies have come to the realization that many of these women do not necessarily want to quit their jobs, however the patriarchal Korean working culture as well as the traditional expectation that mothers nurture babies in the home makes company life almost impossible for new Korean mothers.

A Western-style Korean wedding

Crossing over to the Husband’s Family

Aside from leaving her job, a Korean woman may also be expected to leave her own family.  Korean marriages are slightly different to stereotypical Western marriages in that Korean marriages are a bridge and contract between two families, rather than an agreement between two individuals.  The most vulnerable and powerless person in these marital transactions is usually the bride. At Korean weddings, the bride symbolically walks towards the husband’s family and bows to her new mother and father-in-law and hugs them; a gesture that demonstrates that she is leaving her own family and is accepting her duty to honor her husband’s family.  This symbolic gesture is not only for show.  In fact, from her wedding day on wards, the bride will embark on an excruciatingly intimate relationship with her in-laws, particularly with her new mother-in-law.

I have one Korean friend whose mother-in-law had a secret key to her house.  My friend didn’t know about this.  While my friend and her husband were out working during the day, her mother-in-law would slip into the house and check what was in the fridge, and whether the house had been cleaned.  Cooking is one area where Korean mother-in-laws are often especially picky.  This particular Korean Mother-in-law would mentally record what she did or did not see in the fridge and then later scold her daughter-in-law for not preparing special foods for her son.  This is just one example of how the daughter-in-law must often bow to the slightly overbearing whims of her mother-in-law.  Difficulty in managing the mother-in-law may be one of the reasons why a number of my Korean female friends dream of moving to another country, as to create some distance between themselves and their mother-in-laws.

Undertones of Gender Preference

Unlike many parts of China, the Korean government has successfully implemented measures to ensure that baby girls are valued and treated just as highly as baby boys, and as a result of this, the population numbers of men and women in Korea has evened out significantly since the 1980s.  While there is now no direct negative social stigma attached to giving birth to a daughter, there is still some underlying hidden pressure felt by Korean women to give birth to a baby boy who can carry on the family blood line.  Of course, quite a number of Korean families have no sons and boast about their beautiful and talented daughters.  However, I have met a number of women in Korea who have recently given birth to baby girls, and their mother-in-laws have expressed deep and open disappointment.  On occasion, mother-in-laws in Korea directly criticize their daughters-in-law for giving birth to only daughters, claiming that the birth mother must exhibit some form of “inadequacy” or “defect” that has resulted in their inability to produce a son.  These kinds of family dynamics still arise in Korea from time to time, and I have witnessed and felt unhappy about this gender-preference issue, as some traditional-minded Koreans still feel that the family name and history can only be carried on by a son.

Waiting to be married, the traditional way

The Holiday Season is not a Holiday

‘Chuseok’ and ‘Seollal’ are the two biggest national holidays in Korea, and they both involve travelling to the husband’s family’s house for a huge meal.  However, in Korea, Chuseok and Seollal have very narrow gender roles and these ‘celebrations’ are not considered to be relaxing holidays for married Korean women.  There is a sharp rise in divorce in Korea after these holiday seasons, partly because women experience a great deal of pressure to produce a huge quantity of food such as traditional ‘jeon’ pancakes and ‘tteokguk’ soup, as well as being expected to complete all the cleaning, while taking care of young children.  While the women barely have a moment to eat anything or enjoy these holidays, Korean men typically relax and watch TV, or fall asleep on the floor.  Every holiday season I stay with a different Korean family and witness how brutally exhausted the women look during all of the cooking and cleaning on these “special days”, and how comfortable and unconcerned the men look as they drink their rice wine and watch sport on television.  Never once have I witnessed a Korean man get up to assist his wife during a public holiday feast.

Korean women are always up on their feet, while their husbands
sit down at home

Kimchi Labor 

The Kimchi (Korean spicy cabbage) making season, known as “kimjang”, is also an extremely busy and labour-intensive time for married women in Korea.  Traditionally, around the end of November each year, all the married (and sometimes unmarried) women in the house will get together and use 100-200 heads of cabbage to create a year’s worth of the famous Korean sidedish over two days.  These days many Korean women try to avoid the kimjang season and buy their kimchi from large supermarkets. In the past, however, Korean mothers would pressure their daughter-in-laws to prepare kimchi by hand with their preferred recipe, and criticize them sharply if they bought kimchi that was not homemade.  Even though a lot of Koreans are starting to buy packaged kimchi, I have still overheard Korean men proudly boasting about how well their wives can make hand-make kimchi.  This starts to make me ponder my own kimchi-making-future, as everytime I have been on a blind date with a Korean man I have been asked how well I can cook.  Thinking about preparing 200 heads of cabbage with salt and fish sauce every November personally makes me break into a sweat.  Although once I personally experience a real kimjang season, I may change my mind.

A Korean woman in the traditional markets

Marching Onwards

The future of the modern Korean woman depends largely on how Korean society can evolve to accept the expanding role of women in the public sphere, while adapting what is expected of them in the traditional private sphere.  Of course, part of redefining women’s role in the private sphere may involve adjusting how Korean men interact and participate in the home.  Perhaps more Korean men could try their hand at cooking during Chuseok and Seollal, although for many Koreans this suggestion might seem outrageous or inconceivable, as this would mean breaking with hundreds of years of tradition.  If I one day decide to marry a Korean man, I hope that I would not experience excess pressure to expertly produce high-grade kimchi every season, and I would hope that my Korean mother-in-law would never hold a secret key to my apartment.

A traditional Korean wedding


Luigina Webb
Luigina Webb is originally Australian but has studied abroad in Israel, the US, and South Korea, where she now works as an interpreter in a Korean trading company. She has traveled to over thirty countries. Luigina owns a large collection of Korean traditional hats and headdresses sourced from all over Korea. You can check out her blog at http://www.luiginakorea.com/

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